Best-selling espionage novelist Olen Steinhauer sets his newest spy thriller in Carmel. Or as the dust jacket blurb identifies the city — “the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.”
It’s always idyllic, quaint or charming when you choose an adjective to place before Carmel. I understand that and have no large quarrel with the easy ritual. But the city’s cloying full name with its by-the-sea suffix is too much.
For one thing, Carmel sits by an ocean, not a sea. Why would the charming citizens of the idyllic town want a quaint yet erroneous name for their community? And what if the marketing practice spreads? Could we soon have Monterey-by-the-Bay, Pacific Grove-by-the-Bay-and-the-Sea or Prunedale-by-the-Highway?
I say nip it in the bud, and make it simply Carmel. The tourists — I mean visitors — would still come and eventually wander down to the water — I mean famed white-sand beach — and realize they were by the ocean — I mean sea.
I’m less than 50 pages into Steinhauer’s book, “All the Old Knives,” so be assured there won’t be any plot spoilers here. All I know is that it involves two old hands from the CIA’s Vienna station who are former lovers. He is still with the Company; she is retired from the CIA and has been living the past five years in Carmel with her two young children and her rich, retired business executive husband. The two spies do what everyone does in Carmel, meet for dinner over which the story unfolds.
Setting an espionage yarn in Carmel doesn’t strain belief. After all, one of the city’s former mayors, Sue McCloud, was a CIA hand. And no self-respecting spy novelist would set a story in Seaside-by-the-Seaside unless, and until, Seaside becomes home to a horse-racing track, an oft-used setting in crime, thriller and personal-finance-ruination novels.
I’m guessing the plot involves terrorists or parking-meter hackers and a diabolical plan to shove street addresses down the throats of Carmel residents. But I have no actionable intelligence about the story because, like I said, I’ve only read 50 pages.
But those introductory pages contain plenty of Steinhauer’s observations about contemporary life in Carmel, which left me wondering if the author did his own field work or relied on Google searches.
Some of his words about Carmel ring true, some seem hollow and others — city image spoiler alert — are downright unflattering. Celia, the ex-CIA agent, has moved to the city, “this leafy utopian outpost,” to get away from the tension and grind of the war on terror. So far, so good. There are many leaves, indeed, in Carmel.
Steinhauer gives a quick gloss on the city’s early days as a bohemian artist colony whose growth was pushed by the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But then he gets a little hard-boiled.
“The town’s history is associated with famous writers — Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Robinson Jeffers — but I doubt those old artists would be able to afford a meal in the town it’s become.”
Celia’s quotidian life amid Carmel’s leafiness isn’t a bed of roses, either. She’s undergoing weekly psychotherapy and working part-time at the Stevenson School. To keep busy, she volunteers at the Sunset Center, which Steinhauer simply describes as a venue for “traveling musicians, most long past their prime (who) play mid-century hits for the retirees.”
Ouch! This strikes me as lazy Google research. Every local knows Bach never has played the center’s world-renowned Bach Festival.
Celia also lands a part-time photographer job at the Carmel Pine Cone, which the author simply dismisses as “the local rag.”
Having worked in newspapers most of my adult life I recognize the right of residents of any community to call their local newspaper the local rag — no matter its merits or lack thereof. In some cases, the authors are right and do not need literary license for the judgment.
Carmel’s 25-mph speed limit, profuse stop signs and “brief views of small homes through the trees” lead the main character, Henry, down Ocean Avenue to downtown and the beach.
Henry’s take on the air outside his rental car is a civic booster’s dream. “It’s the freshest air I’ve breathed in my life.”
Wow! That’s some fine air. But it’s hardly confined to Carmel’s square mile. Ask anyone from, say, Pacific Grove, and they’ll put their airs against Carmel’s any day.
But then things turn grayer, a fictional foreshadowing of more dramatic events to come than simply taking a few whiffs of air-by-the-sea.
Is Henry’s aside on a “smattering of locals and tourists, each one his own particular shade of white” a smart comment on the hermetic life of spies? Or simply more Google research about Carmel’s monochromatic population — 95 percent white?
Henry sees the town center as “cinematic version of a quaint English village.”
“I’m in the middle of an idealized vision of a seaside village,” he thinks, “rather than the real thing.” A perfect place for Celia to forget her past life.
And a nice place to live, I might add, if you’ve got the dough, for folks who never were spies and who don’t mind tight building codes to protect property values. And who enjoy lots of leaves and visitors who spend plenty of money without making much racket to shake all the leaves.
But that’s a humdrum story better suited for the local rag, not a snappy spy novel.